SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Throughout the buildup to the NFL draft, fans, analysts and even head coaches and general managers develop what have come to be known as "draft crushes." Those are the players that someone just can't stop watching on tape.
In the run-up to their first draft in charge, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan developed an appreciation for their share of players. Last week, Lynch told KNBR radio that Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster qualified as a draft crush for him, and he went on to name one for Shanahan who didn't come with nearly the high profile of Foster: wide receiver Trent Taylor.
"We all give each other a hard time during the draft process because we all develop these draft crushes," Lynch said. "Trent Taylor was one of those guys for Kyle. He's got a rare ability, and that's what Kyle wants, a slot receiver to separate. He can get open on third down. He's a chain mover."
While the 49ers made the aggressive move to land Foster late in the first round, the wait to bring Taylor to town was much longer. The Niners drafted him in the fifth round with the 177th pick overall. The 5-foot-8, 181-pound slot receiver out of Louisiana Tech was the only wideout the 49ers selected with their 10 picks.
It was a choice that didn't come with much fanfare but certainly brought a smile to Shanahan's face.
"What Trent did is I thought he was as good at the slot role as anyone that we were looking at in the draft, is he really owned that spot," Shanahan said. "He was very quick. His body’s always under him. He can make cuts. I thought what impressed me the most about him, besides the separation ability, is that when he did get the ball in his hands, he ran angry and pissed off. He got up the field. He’s not scared to get hit. He’s a very competitive, violent runner, and those are the guys to me who keep you on the field and move the chains.”
While those are all desirable qualities in a slot receiver, it still begs the question of what moved Taylor into "draft crush" territory over other talented players? The easiest answer: toughness.
Like most players of his size, Taylor didn't make it to where he was without a fearless approach that belies his stature. As a 160-pound high schooler in Shreveport, Louisiana, Taylor played receiver, safety, cornerback and punt returner. Despite consistently being one of the smallest players on the field, Taylor never hesitated to get physical, especially on defense.
"There’s a bunch of clips of me knocking some people out in high school," Taylor said. "I broke this kid’s jaw one time hitting him on a slant route. I didn’t mean to do that, but it happened."
Even on offense, Taylor has never been afraid to take on would-be tacklers in the open field.
"It’s something that’s always been in me," Taylor said. "I guess just [have] a love for the game, people telling me my whole life that I’m not supposed to be here. So anytime I get the ball, I want to prove them wrong, prove that I can compete with the best of them and I’m not scared to lay my head in there and hit anybody who comes my way."
Taylor also honed his skills by playing other sports, including tennis. He played only one season of high school tennis, but he played doubles with his quarterback and the pair made it to the state finals. He credits that season with helping to improve his footwork.
Still, Taylor's lack of size prevented major college offers from rolling in. Louisiana Tech was the only football offer he received, making his recruiting process an easy one.
At Louisiana Tech, Taylor continued to find ways to produce. In 51 games, he posted 327 catches for 4,179 yards and 32 touchdowns, including 136, 1,803 and 12 as a senior. Naturally, Taylor has drawn comparisons to other undersized slot receivers known for their toughness and ability to get open from the slot. Names like Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Wes Welker are the obvious, if not lazy, comparisons that come up, but as Shanahan points out, there's a reason for it.
"I’d like to come up with someone else, but just speaking facts, that’s what he looks like," Shanahan said. "He moves similar to [WR Jeremy] Kerley. He’s built that way. We’re talking slot receivers. There’s different types, but usually the quicker guys whose feet are always under them, who can make cuts at any time, those are the guys who make it and usually those guys are smaller guys who aren’t so fast.
"There’s not many slot receivers who run 4.3. There’s a reason. They can’t cut as well as they need to underneath. It’s the same with nickel backs. In order to cover those slot receivers, not many of them are real long and lanky. They’re pretty short and quick too. So, it’s all about matchups and who you want to put against other people when it’s man to man coverage. That’s usually what you get on third down, and that’s a real important thing to staying on the field.”
For the Niners, Taylor is expected to step in and compete for a role in the slot. Kerley was re-signed and is likely to start, but Taylor should have every opportunity to win a roster spot behind him and, perhaps, become the team's primary punt returner. While Taylor is aware of the other comparisons, he's also a fan of Atlanta wideout Taylor Gabriel and took notice of how Shanahan used him with the Falcons.
Draft crush or not, Taylor is well aware of what Shanahan's offense can do for his career.
"Just to know the type of interest he has in me and the belief he has in me as a player, that’s always good to know," Taylor said. "It just brings some extra confidence going into this system and being out there on the field, it’s great to know."